This poem, by Irish poet William Butler Yeats, is a beautiful piece of language. Use it as a first introduction to grownup poetry for older elementary and secondary level students.
Here’s the poem:
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Here’s Josepha reading this poem from Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology:
…and a bad recording of a beautiful high school performance of the Randall Stroope arrangement:
Read or listen to the poem. Then use these discussion questions to get to understand it:
- What would “the heavens’ embroidered cloths” be? What colors would they be? Why would they be embroidered?
- Yeats says, “I, being poor…”Would a rich man be more likely to have the heavens’ embroidered cloths? What might the embroidered cloths stand for?
- Have students ever heard the expression to ask for the moon? This means to wish for something unattainable. What would it mean, then, to want to give someone the moon and stars, and in fact the whole sky?
- Yeats wants to spread the sky under the feet of the person he’s talking to. Have the students ever wanted to spread something under someone’s feet? What would that mean? Consider examples like rose petals strewn on the path a bride walks on or Sir Walter Raleigh’s famous gesture of laying down his coat for Queen Elizabeth to walk on.
- Yeats can’t give the sky, but he can give his dreams. Now he wants to lay his dreams under the foot of the person to whom he addresses his poem. What would that mean?
- Yeats asks the person to whom he is addressing the poem to tread (walk) softly, since she’s walking on his dreams. What might it be like to walk on someone’s dreams? People usually think this is a love poem. Are there other ways to interpret it? If this is a love poem, is it a reasonable request? Would she be responsible for the safety of his dreams?
- If you listened to the musical setting of the poem, ask students whether they feel that the music communicates the feeling of the poem well.
Once the class understands the poem thoroughly, ask them to create an embroidered cloth of heaven for the floor. Put all the creations on the floor with painters’ tape for the rest of the class period and walk on them. Discuss how it felt.